Mississippi State University’s world-class student rocket engineers are breaking barriers, discovering ways to travel farther and faster, and literally launching the next generation of space exploration.






MSU’s Rocket Team Conquers the Boundaries of Imagination

Reaching for the stars is synonymous with chasing dreams. At Mississippi State University, the nation’s preeminent aeronautics engineering research and design team is turning dreams into reality, building rockets that can fly faster and farther than anyone has ever imagined.

With the support of the Aerospace Engineering Department of Mississippi State’s renowned Bagley College of Engineering, students are launching their educations and careers from a foundation of excellence built over the past 100 years. At the same time, they are outpacing the accomplishments of programs around the globe.

In national intercollegiate rocket competitions of speed, altitude and distance, the MSU team, known as the Space Cowboys, stands out, recording notable performances against teams from engineering powerhouses like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan.

Trophies aren’t the only thing the team is chasing. Consisting of more than 30 students, all of whom are undergraduate engineering majors, the Space Cowboys are striving to achieve speed and altitude goals that will secure world records for amateur rocketry.




“Having come from industry, I know that very few things are done by single individuals in aerospace engineering,” says faculty advisor Rob Wolz. “You have to communicate a vision to team members and then work with them to accelerate high-capacity data into something that actually works. That’s a pretty big jump from what you learn in a textbook.

“That’s why our Space Cowboys team is structured like a professional engineering organization,” he adds. “Their efforts to achieve specific goals give them an incredible opportunity to develop technical and project management skills that are second to none. MSU's winning edge comes from the freedom to dream and try new approaches, even if the attempts are unsuccessful.”





During a recent competition in New Mexico, failure provided an educational opportunity. Despite previous successful test flights, the team’s competition rocket experienced structural failure due to aerodynamic flutter at Mach 1.6 (1,200 mph). As a result, the rocket broke up in flight and was almost entirely lost. This ended the team’s hopes of winning the competition, but disappointment was softened by recovery of the rocket’s flight data recorder that the team had engineered and built. Post flight analysis of the data confirmed excellent correlations to preflight predictions as well as a better understanding of failure conditions.




“These hands-on events are real world,” says Wolz. “Even when things don’t go according to plan, our students are still learning. By determining what doesn’t work and why, they are discovering what will.

“Think of it this way,” he adds. “We are empowering students to collaboratively design, build and test high performance vehicles, carrying instrumentation capable of measuring, storing and transmitting data critical for validation of rocket performance, thereby providing our students with an outstanding experience and pushing technical boundaries.

“Imagine what we can achieve on our next project.”


In the spirit of expanding its influence within the collegiate rocket community, the Space Cowboys have shared their launch area with the rocket team from the University of Alabama. Similar collaborations could be expanded to include rocket engineers from other SEC schools.

The Space Cowboys also participate in several outreach events to elementary students, fellow college students, and the general public each year. These presentations give team members a chance to show off their rockets while pointing students in grades kindergarten – 12 to careers in aerospace engineering.

Meanwhile, a summer science camp enables team members to mentor 3rd - 5th graders through the process of building and launching their own model rockets. The team plans to implement a similar launch day for Mississippi State students as a way of building excitement and informing participants in ways they can design and build their own model rockets.


“Student interest in the field of astronautic research is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Wolz. “And why wouldn’t it be?

“Rocket science is helping shape our world every day,” he says. “Space program technology at NASA has led to new household products and appliances such as mobile phones, flat-screen televisions and cordless vacuum cleaners. The technology developed to power the Cowboys’ rockets could help develop the next generation of cutting-edge products and services.

“What an exciting time and place for students to gain practical experience that’s transferable into their post-graduation work environment.”


Want to learn more about Mississippi State?